Ringed seal (Pusa hispida) abundance in Spitsbergen, Svalbard, was estimated during the peak molting period via aerial, digital photographic surveys. A total of 9,145 images, covering 41.7%?100% of the total fast-ice cover (1,496 km2) of 18 different fjords and bays, were inspected for the presence of ringed seals. A total of 1,708 seals were counted, and when accounting for ice areas that were not covered by images, a total of 3,254 (95% CI: 3,071?3,449) ringed seals were estimated to be hauled out during the surveys. Extensive behavioral data from radio-tagged ringed seals (collected in a companion study) from one of the highest density fjords during the molting period were used to create a model that predicts the proportion of seals hauled out on any given date, time of day, and under various meteorological conditions. Applying this model to the count data from each fjord, we estimated that a total of 7,585 (95% CI: 6,332-9,085) ringed seals were present in the surveyed area during the peak molting period. Data on interannual variability in ringed seal abundance suggested higher numbers of seals in Van Keulenfjorden in 2002 compared to 2003, while other fjords with very stable ice cover showed no statistical differences. Poor ice conditions in general in 2002 probably resulted in seals from a wide area coming to Van Keulenfjorden (a large fjord with stable ice in 2002). The total estimated number of ringed seals present in the study area at the time of the survey must be regarded as a population index, or at least a minimum estimate for the area, because it does not account for individuals leaving and arriving, which might account for a considerable number of animals. The same situation is likely the case for many other studies reporting aerial census data for ringed seals. To achieve accurate estimates of population sizes from aerial surveys, more extensive knowledge of ringed seal behavior will be required.
Additional publication details
Abundance of ringed seals (Pusa hispida) in the fjords of Spitsbergen, Svalbard, during the peak molting period